On the Hermeneutics and Interpretation of Rev 20:1-3: A Preconsummationist Perspective
White, R. Fowler, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
ON THE HERMENEUTICS AND INTERPRETATION OF REV 20:1-3: A PRECONSUMMATIONIST(1) PERSPECTIVE
As the symposium A Case for Premillennialism: A New Consensus(2) demonstrates, the interpretation of Rev 20:1-6 continues to influence significantly the premillennial exposition of biblical eschatology. Objections have been lodged against attributing such importance to the pervasively symbolic, hence less interpretively accessible, apocalyptic literature of Revelation.3 Premillennialists, however, have clung arduously to their views, arguing for the chronological progression of Revelation 19-20, the futurity of Satan's imprisonment, the physicality of "the first resurrection," and the literalness of the "one thousand year" duration of Christ's post-second-advent interregnum. At the root of these claims is a more basic concern for hermeneutical consistency in the interpretation of the Bible's apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic literature and of Rev 20:1-6 particularly.4
In my view, preconsummationists ought to receive the premillennialist's concern as an appropriately insistent call for integrity in handling Revelation 20 and the apocalyptic genre. The purpose of this essay is, therefore, to provide a partial answer to the premillennialist's exhortation. Limiting myself to the interpretation of Rev 20:1-3, my specific aim is to identify and apply a canonical paradigm that answers the premillennialists' call for a hermeneutically consistent preconsummationist exegesis of Rev 20:1-3. This is hardly to say that previous preconsummationist efforts are without merit; in fact, the studies of Hoekema and Poythress(5) are fitting preludes to this one, which will attempt to advance the discussion still further.
The thesis of this study is that the biblical and cognate epic ideology of victory over the dragon followed by house building constitutes a fundamental hermeneutical paradigm for the historical-grammatical, yet non-literal interpretation of Rev 20:1-3. The use of the epic ideology as a hermeneutical control in the interpretation of Rev 20:1-3 may initially appear to be a problematic proposal. What, after all, could these ancient cosmogonic themes possibly have to do with visions received on Patmos? Indeed, what warrant do I have to suggest that an author and his audience in late first-century AD Asia Minor could be aware of, for example, mythological traditions from 15th-century BC Canaan? The problems of comparative methodology seem formidable enough to make my thesis impossible. But several factors provide reasons sufficient to stay the course. They include (1) the interaction with ancient mythic lore in John's OT and Jewish apocalyptic literary heritage;(6) (2) the accessibility of Ugaritic combat mythology to John and his audience through the work of Philo of Byblos;(7) and (3) the legacy of analogs to Canaanite epic in and around the Anatolian region where John's audience was located.8 Admittedly, uncertainties still exist as to how and in what form authors and their audiences in the late first century AD could have come by a knowledge of cognate myth. There is no reason, however, to doubt that such material was available.9 It is precisely the availability of this material (from OT sources and beyond) to John and his audience that in my judgment justifies this study of John's vision in Rev 20:1-3 in terms of the epic themes of victory and house building.
Our study divides into two sections, the first focusing on the use of the epic paradigm in the Bible and the second focusing on the interpretation of Rev 20:1-3 in light of that canonical model.
I. IDENTIFYING A CANONICAL HERMENEUTICAL PARADIGM FOR THE INTERPRETATION OF REV 20:1-3: THE PREEMPTION OF EPIC IDEOLOGY IN THE BIBLE
Elsewhere I have argued that Rev 20:1-10 records a recapitulatory series of visions whose contents are related to Christ's second advent in 20:7-10 and thus to his first advent and the interadvent age in 20:1-6. 10 Having thus addressed the premillennialist's advocacy of a chronological approach to Revelation 19-20, our attention turns here to the issue of the dragon's imprisonment in 20:1-3. …